article published on July 2, 2013.
Los Angeles – city of angels, misfits, movies and bums. An asphalt sprawl peppered with palm trees and oozing stories at every intersection. You’d be forgiven for thinking those stories mostly revolve around, or serve as fodder for, Hollywood – pilots, pitches, rags to riches. After all, behind almost every bright-white glowing apple that gazes out from tables in coffee shops throughout
the city there’s a fledgling screenplay, not a novel or short story. And yet some of the most iconic literary figures of the last hundred years or so – Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Bret Easton Ellis, the list goes on – have LA pumping through their
veins and their work.
It’s tempting to trace this dividing line between cinema and literature along the fissure that separates glitz from grit, glamour from grime. Los Angeles literature, at least at its best, almost always invites us into a downbeat world of heavy drinking, decrepit hotels, gambling and crime. Los Angeles cinema, aka Hollywood, covers (by definition) a much wider range of stories but all are usually infused with a sense of aspiration, an optimism, inevitably wrapped in the glittering tinsel that gave the town its nickname.
The most notable examples of film casting a rare dark light over LA are those adapted from literature. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, adapted from nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver, stands out as an example of Hollywood finally examining its own underbelly, and serves as perfect counterpoint to The Player, also directed by Altman and starring Tim Robbins. Bent Hamer’s Factotum delivers on screen exactly what we’ve come to expect from LA literature, but only because it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Bukowski’s second novel. And the steady churn of Ellroy and Chandler adaptations over the years, some better than others, continue to provide an impression of Los Angeles as far from perfect, albeit the world of crime and its detection offers up its own glamour, its own idealised version of the city, that might explain its mass appeal.
So at least, through a combination of films and books, LA can be understood in more than one dimension. But in firmly establishing these extreme polarities, what is conspicuous by its absence, and arguably most important, is the middle ground, the average Angeleno, the city as it really is. Films like Crash and Traffic (itself based on a TV miniseries) appear to try and bridge this gap with a
portmanteau of stories, but upon closer inspection they’re simply juxtaposing variations of the traditional extremes to give a sense of average, a hologram of real life.
Why is it that good cinema, good literature, seems to have ignored the mass middle that best reflects truth for most people in Los Angeles? It’s a city dedicated to storytelling, and yet it refuses to plumb the depths of a huge portion of its population, its history, its problems. Perhaps it’s simply because this average is inherently not dramatic. Or there is too much drama in the fringes of life in LA distracting the city’s authors and filmmakers, tempting them away from more honest, but more prosaic, narratives.
But there may just be hope, and not in a saccharin-sweet tinseltown kind of way. Films over recent years are beginning to tackle this middle ground, muscling closer to its core from those comfortable outer edges. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is probably this new wave’s best example, a film that follows a carpenter and a personal assistant as they figure all of their messy shit out in the traffic-fumed swirl of the city. They’re each an unfortunate combination of unsuccessful, broke, unlucky in love, or without wheels. But they’re not down and out, they’re not gambling, heavy drinking criminals living in the worst parts of town. It’s a reality that many locals will recognise – that of small personal dramas, of lives being lived against a backdrop of excessive wealth, celebrity and that Hollywood sign, all just out of reach as you stretch to avoid the panhandlers, the crazies and those gun crimes. Life in Los Angeles – city of stories, and so many still untapped.